There are Catholics who see the Second Vatican Council as a disaster. The Catholic Church, they say, was flourishing until those fatal years 1962 till 1965 during which the Council was held; then the Church was suddenly in crisis, with heresies spreading like wildfire, with moral standards overturned, with vandalisation of the age-old liturgy, with disobedience bordering on anarchy.
It was not coincidence, they insist, that this upheaval occurred in the wake of the Council. It was caused largely by the Council. For the documents issued by Vatican II (they allege) contain many ambiguities and some outright errors; and these were inserted by cunning modernists among the theologians and bishops, with the intention of changing the Faith into something incompatible with Tradition but acceptable to the modern world.
I would argue, on the contrary, that Vatican II was an excellent Council, and that if its directives were faithfully followed there would be a springtime for the Church such as Pope John Paul II hoped for. Its propositions are clear, with very few ambiguous statements in the whole of the sixteen documents, and it provides answers for the problems facing us now.
In this article I want to look at key points in the documents which, had they been followed, would have eliminated all the big problems found in the Church today and would have rejuvenated Catholic life. I will then look at specific complaints made by those who criticise Vatican II.
At the root of the ecclesial upheavals of recent decades is the widespread defiance of the Church's authority. We are told by people who support this defiance that Vatican II abandoned an outdated, repressive, authoritarian model of the Church and gave the green light to thinking for oneself. Let's look at what the documents actually say.
The central document of Vatican II, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), reiterates the traditional doctrine that the Pope and the bishops united with him are divinely guided when they teach the faithful. '... [t]he faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra ...' (n. 25). So the Council not only required adherence to infallible teachings, but to authentic teachings which fall short of infallibility.
That same section 25 (which is a key section in the Council's documents) goes on to explain three ways in which the Church exercises her infallibility: the Pope alone, the Pope and the bishops together making a solemn pronouncement in an Ecumenical Council, and the Pope and bishops exercising their ordinary universal magisterium. That disposes of the silly idea sometimes heard that there are only a few infallible teachings. Actually there are dozens, as a glance through a standard work, Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals Of Catholic Dogma, will show.
The two pages comprising n. 25 are alone enough to destroy the nonsense about Catholics being free to do their own thing theologically, and to disagree respectfully with the magisterium after mature reflection. But those pages are not alone.
On the question of the true Church the Council is equally clear, despite the often-heard claim that it was ambiguous here. Declaring that the Church is necessary for salvation, Lumen Gentium goes on to say: 'Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it could not be saved' (n. 14).
Then, in its description of Christ's Church, the Constitution shows that the Catholic Church is meant, for it speaks of its hierarchical structure, with the Pope at its head, and of the sacraments. It explains that people outside Catholic unity are united in various ways with the Church, but it declares that 'They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops' (n. 14).
One of the most upsetting things in the post-Conciliar Church is found in the way the liturgy is often celebrated. Words are added or omitted at the whim of the celebrant, in the name of creativity and relevance to the particular congregation. Too often there is a banal quality and a loss of a sense of the sacred. All this is alleged to stem from the Vatican II requirement that the liturgy be reformed.
But if we examine what the Council actually asked for, we get a different picture. Each celebration of the liturgy was declared to be 'a sacred action surpassing all others ...' (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 7). It is '... above all things the worship of the divine majesty ...' (n. 33).
Changes were to be moderate and only to be made for good reasons: '[T]here must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing' (n. 23). 'In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of but only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy' (n. 28).
Latin was to be retained in the liturgy, while making provision for some use of the vernacular. 'Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites' (n. 36). Regarding music: 'The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services' (n 116). Regarding sacred art and similar matters: 'Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed, for they are the ornaments of the house of God' (n. 126).
The Constitution issued a key instruction which, had it been every-where obeyed, would have prevented every single one of the scandals stemming from unauthorised liturgical innovations. Having stated that regulation of the liturgy belongs solely to the authority of the Church, it continued: 'Therefore, no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority' (n. 22).
The Decree on Priestly Training states that philosophy is to be taught relying on 'a philosophical patrimony which is perennially valid, and taking into account the philosophical investigations of later ages' (n. 15). As indicated in the document's footnote to Pius XII, this is the perennial philosophy of which St Thomas Aquinas is the greatest exponent. A little further on the Decree says that students for the priesthood should study theology 'under the guidance of St Thomas' (n. 16).
Had these injunctions been followed the philosophy and theology in the world's seminaries would have been solid and orthodox.
The Council made it very clear that all are called to be saints (cf. the Constitution on the Church, n. 40; Decree on Ecumenism, n. 4). Regarding the laity, their baptism and confirmation give them the right and the duty to be apostles of Christ in the world (Decree on the Lay Apostolate, n. 3). They should do this by words and not just by example (n. 6). 'In addition to spiritual formation, a solid doctrinal instruction in theology, ethics and philosophy adjusted to differences in age, status and natural talents, is required' (n. 29).
Take that last sentence. Suppose young Catholics at the end of the Council had set aside a couple of hours a week to study philosophy, theology and related subjects, and had continued to do this till now. What a wonderful formation they would have! Instead we find that most, including Catholics who practise their faith fervently, lack the knowledge to engage in an intelligent discussion of Catholic doctrine; while those who have done courses in the subject are often the most confused of all because of the errors they have been taught.
Now for alleged errors and ambiguities. A common allegation relates to the Council's statement that the Church 'subsists in' the Catholic Church (Constitution on the Church, n. 8.) This means, so the objection goes, that the Catholic Church is only part of the Church of Christ.
Were that the meaning, the document would be flatly contradicting what it said elsewhere, as quoted above. But the true sense is given in the words that follow in the same paragraph, where it is explained that 'many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.'
The Catholic Church is Christ's Church in its fullness, but to the extent that elements of his Church are found outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church, his sanctification and truth are there, as well as in the visible structure of the Catholic Church.
Compare the words 'subsists in' with the theological and philosophical statement that God alone is subsistent being, while all else comes from him and is dependent on him.
A second objection is that Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom contradicts what the Church had taught up to that time. In fact, there is no contradiction, but there is development. The Declaration on Religious Freedom is about the function of the State in regard to religion, and it insists that people must not be compelled to act against their conscience, and must be allowed to follow their religious practices in public (even if these are sometimes erroneous).
But their rights are not unqualified. The document speaks of 'within due limits' (n. 2) and 'provided just public order is observed' (n. 3).
A third objection claims the Council advocates a false ecumenism. This too is an unjustified claim. The Decree on Ecumenism states that it is only through Christ's Catholic Church that people can benefit fully from the means of salvation (n. 3). It insists that 'the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace' (n. 4). It declares, 'Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded' (n. 11).
While urging prudent cooperation with other Christians, limits are recognised. For instance, the Decree says: 'Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice' (n. 8).
To sum up. Had Vatican II been followed perfectly, there would be only faithful presentations of doctrine today, complete acceptance of the Church's moral teachings, full conformity to her liturgical norms, an openness to non-Catholics without any watering down of Catholic beliefs, an excellent knowledge of sound theology and philosophy, and a fervent striving to be saints.
John Young is a Melbourne-based writer and lecturer. He is a regular contributor to Australian and overseas journals and is author of the recently published 'The Scope of Philosophy' (Warrane College: University of New South Wales) which is available from Freedom Publishing ($20.00).